Sunday, November 28, 2010

Brief Points on the Contraception Furor

Jimmy Akin has argued for some time, quite plausibly, that the most authoritative censures of contraception by the Catholic Church are explicitly directed toward Christian married couples, and that the misconception that it is broader than this is due in part to bad information and in part to bad translation. He discusses one part of that argument here. There is in fact good reason to think that some of the reasons for rejecting the use of contraception in Christian marriage would also support the conclusion that at least much use of contraception outside of it would be rejected as well; but the extent of this has never been officially pronounced, and, indeed, has barely even been discussed.

As I've said before, Humanae Vitae is not on the subject of contraception but explicitly on the subject of how to have a marriage-friendly modern society, with contraception and other technological quesions being some of the major issues that come up as part of that problem. The conclusions about contraception there do not build on any simple argument, but on several complex strands: (1) the theology of marriage as a sacrament; (2) a single species-level point of natural law (which I've talked about here) along with natural-law precepts relevant to sex in a broader or more indirect way; (3) respect for the whole natural functioning of the human organism, which might be called the integrity of the rational animal; (4) a virtue-theoretical account of familial love, both between spouses and between parents and children, as part of human civilization; and (5) the function of marriage as a source of natural growth for the Church. It is not, in fact, difficult to find all of these points all over various pronouncements on the subject; but, except for very garbled versions of (2), one rarely finds any of it in summaries. It's very much a case of "What Everyone Knows" drowning out what is demonstrably the case. Catholics themselves have been major contributors to the confusion, including, unfortunately, Catholic priests of the kind who like to open their mouths before they use their minds (and reading skills!), although they are hardly the only ones to blame for it.

Actually, this sort of furor has been pretty common for quite some time now. The Church had almost exactly the same problems with the moral theology of truth-telling in the nineteenth century that it began to have with the moral theology of marital sex in the twentieth century; and while it surely says something about our society that the Victorian and Edwardian British were in this sort of furor over candour and we are in it over condoms, one still sees the same breakdowns of communication, the same kinds of deliberate misrepresentation in polemic, and the same steady attempt to oversimplify and drop all qualifications. And that was when the Church could build on Alphonsus Liguori, a far better expositor of natural law and virtue than any Catholics pontificating on the subject today. Modern moral theology is really in shambles; its expositors are in general simply not intellectually up to the task, and the relative few who are cannot do everything on their own. But even if they were, the problems would not go away; all the problems would arise because they result not from any particular content or failing but from the structure of Catholic controversy itself, and Catholic controversy we've had in one form or another for a very long time. (The Suburban Banshee gives a handful of other examples, for those who are interested.)


  1. Arsen Darnay7:29 AM

    You might say more on what you mean by "the structure of Catholic controversy." You use the phrase as if its meaning was self-evident, but it leaves me both wondering and eager to know more...

  2. branemrys8:22 AM

    I was actually using it less because I thought its meaning self-evident than because what I have in mind is fairly complex, and I couldn't think of any other way to describe it without going into it in detail. I'll try to have a post clarifying what I meant sometime later in the week.

  3. John Perry11:30 AM

    What I've found remarkable is that no one seems to remember Cardinal Schonborn's comment that was much to this effect some thirteen years ago. I was in seminary at the time, brought it up in moral theology class as an example of a perfectly orthodox Catholic cardinal admitting the use of contraception in certain circumstances -- as a lesser evil, but admitting it nevertheless -- and scandalized my entire class, who usually considered me more Catholic than the pope. The professor was actually impressed and pleased, and we got a good discussion out of the meaning of the phrase, "the conjugal act".

    So Benedict's comments don't bother me in the least, especially when coupled with the phrase, "neither a real nor moral solution". But boy, I'll bet a lot of people feel betrayed, especially given the sloppy way it has been reported in the media.

  4. branemrys11:56 AM

    That is interesting; I hadn't realized myself that Schonborn had said something of the nature. The remark is very much a Ratzinger thing to say, and yet people are surprised by it. I've been amazed at the people who have come out of the woodwork insisting that the pope was just imprudent in talking about the subject at all, as if that were any way to handle moral matters.

    What I find most remarkable myself is that the comment in question occurs at the end of an argument that is explicitly for the conclusion that people, and especially the media, are too preoccupied with the issue of condoms and need to think about the broader sexual issues. The irony of the fuss that came about as a result of it just astounds me (I was at a supposed "critical thinking and rationality" blog earlier in my websurfing today and they described it as the pope's "preoccupation with condoms," thus tipping everyone off to the fact that they hadn't actually bothered to engage in any critical thinking or rational interpretation. That sort of thing is quite common.

  5. John Farrell12:54 PM

    Your Manual Labor post is superb (I don't mind saying, three years late!).

  6. branemrys1:09 PM

    Thanks; there are one or two points at which the argument moves too quickly, so there are one or two steps of the argument that are a bit loose. But I think it holds up well, and is correct in every essential particular.

  7. Toomas Vooglaid2:43 PM

    It's hard to remember something said 14 years ago when it is under such a heap of pronouncements <img></img>. Brandon, do you really see pope's remark about "fixation on condoms" being about just "preoccupation" not "propagation"?

  8. branemrys4:43 PM

    Hi, Tom,

    I might be misunderstanding you, but in context Benedict certainly is criticizing people for focusing on condoms rather than anything else, and so is criticizing the preoccupation with condoms; the argument being that dealing with the HIV crisis in Africa requires a much broader form of policy, one that solves problems that condom distribution can't. The argument really begins with his exasperated remark about the fact that when he went to Africa he did quite a few things but the only thing that was really talked about was his comment on condoms. Likewise, people criticize the Catholic Church for not doing anything about HIV despite its extensive efforts to help prevent HIV and care for the infected, and why? Because it opposes as a general solution the distribution of condoms. So, the pope replies, while there might be particular cases where use of a condom would be a "first step" toward a more morally responsible life, it's not the real, moral solution that's required for handling the problem.

    So I think it's very clear that his comments were about the views people have about HIV policy, and that he wasn't saying much at all about the actual use of condoms.

    Does that answer your question?

  9. Toomas Vooglaid1:57 AM

    Thanks, Brandon!

    Sorry if I didn't express myself clearly. I know my English must "sound" a bit awkward.

    Yes, you answered my question and generally I agree with you, with some qualifications. When you refer to "focusing on condoms" or "preoccuation with condoms" then I see it as concerning a proposed "solution" to HIV/AIDS problem but you seem to see it as "talking about condoms". In other words the question is about preoccupation with condoms as "solution" vs. preoccupation as "topic". Of course, preoccupation as "topic" follows from preoccupation as "solution". But pope's remarks about condoms were not just "<span>the only thing that was really talked about</span>" but that was outrightly rejected and scoffed at... because of preoccupation with condoms as the "real" solution to the problem.

    And now the world again is preoccuied with pope's remarks about condoms because it sees these remarks as Church's or at least his "first step" towards recognizing condom distribution as solution -- i.e. as support to its own "fixation on condoms". And this interpretation needs to be countered, which generates "preoccupation with condoms" in Catholic blogosphere also.

    What needs to be rejected in my view is not preoccupation with condoms as "topic" to be clarified but preoccupation with it as "solution" to HIV/AIDS roblem.  

  10. branemrys7:23 AM

    Hi, Tom,

    Not a problem at all; since I don't generally have any problem with your English, which is quite good, I just attributed it to the ease with which things can accidentally be cut out when trying to be concise in a comment-box!

    That makes sense; and there probably is a good reason to distinguish preoccupation with condoms as a topic and preoccupation with condoms as a policy solution.


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